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Horrific Training Accident Puts Wrestler in Fight of His Life

Wrestler Richard Perry

During a hand-to-hand combat exercise in which they battled to get strikes on each other with foam-padded clubs, Rich took a shot to the face. The foam protection dislodged and the baton slipped through a hole in his facemask, striking him in the eye and causing brain trauma.

OCEANSIDE, California — Richard Perry stood outside the Camp Pendleton barracks a couple weeks ago on a Saturday morning, taking in the sights and sounds with a megawatt smile bright enough to match the California sunshine.

He was retelling the early chapters of his incredible and improbable wrestling story — one that began 13 years ago in Connecticut with a persistent high school coach’s quest to convince a stubborn freshman to look beyond his fixation with football and give wrestling a shot.

Rich laughed as he reflected on some of the subsequent twists and turns and the unlikelihood that it would lead to a wrestling nirvana like this, a USA Wrestling training camp where he scrapped with some of the top wrestlers on the planet as a first-year, full-fledged member of the United States National Team.

This is where he wanted to be — climbing the national ladder, catching up with elite wrestlers who had a decade head start on him in the sport and progressing toward his ultimate goal of reaching international wrestling’s top step.

Everything suddenly changed two days later when the battle to conquer the wrestling world took a back seat to the fight for his life. A horrific accident occurred at training camp and Rich was seriously injured.

The wrestlers were participating in crossover training. During a hand-to-hand combat exercise in which they battled to get strikes on each other with foam-padded clubs, Rich took a shot to the face. The foam protection dislodged and the baton slipped through a hole in his facemask, striking him in the eye and causing brain trauma.  

Jordan Burroughs described it as an “extremely freaky accident.”

Rich’s prognosis remains difficult to gauge because it seemingly changes by the day. His wife, Gina, wrote in a Saturday morning Facebook post that Rich needed “prayers more than ever” after the family received an undesirable report following tests on Friday.

In another post late Saturday night she revealed that doctors feared Rich had bacterial meningitis before discovering it was something “much, much, MUCH less serious.” She also wrote “after 12 days of paralysis on his left side, Rich moved his left hand!”

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Rich’s story in wrestling is one I first heard last July on the tarmac in Colorado Springs. We’d never met until he sat next to me on a Denver-bound flight after a camp at the Olympic Training Center. But Rich is one of those people who can make you feel like a longtime friend in a matter of minutes.

We struck up a conversation as the flight crew informed us our departure was being delayed. We talked about wrestling, its tight-knit community, the places the sport had taken us around the world and the people we’d met along the way.

He told me about Gina and their two children back home in Pennsylvania — this was before another son arrived in the spring — and how they lived in the Lancaster area so they could be near her family. It meant Rich regularly made an 80-mile commute to Philadelphia to wrestle with the Pennsylvania Regional Training Center.

The flight delay — and our conversation — was nearing an hour when I asked Rich about how he got started in wrestling. He told me about the freshman football coach at Middletown High School in Connecticut who also guided the varsity wrestling team. His name was Mark Fong and he was relentless with his sales pitch for the sport.

Fong saw a young man whose life needed stability. Rich’s father wasn’t around and sometimes his mother wasn’t either, Fong said. He described Rich as “kind of an angry kid” in his early high school days. He thought wrestling could steer Rich onto a better path in life.

“I was the annoying one who kept bothering him,” Fong said Friday morning. “In our sport we’re always recruiting because it’s not popular in Connecticut, so I’m always trying to get kids out. He was a really good athlete. I saw a lot of potential in him, both on and off the mat. I knew that wrestling would help him in both areas.”

Fong took more shots than Kyle Snyder in his crusade to get Rich on the mat.

“Every time I’d see him he’d be like, ‘Hey, man, I really think you should try wrestling, I think you’d benefit from it and I think you’d be good at it,’ ” Rich said. “I kept blowing him off and blowing him off. My sophomore year, I’m standing on the sideline for the varsity, I’m not starting and he was like, ‘Hey man, you could be getting better. Wrestling could help you in football.’

“At this point, I was broken. I was like, ‘If you leave me alone for the rest of my sophomore year, I promise I’ll come out to open mats my junior year.' He said, ‘OK’ and walked away. After that, he never said anything about wrestling. I was waiting for him to say something, but he never said anything. I went on with my business, I played my football, but the beginning of my junior football season I saw him and he said, ‘I look forward to seeing you at open mats.’ ”

Rich fulfilled his end of the deal and made a few discoveries during his first days on the mat. He liked the camaraderie and culture within Fong’s program. He admired how some of the most talented wrestlers in the room were also the ones volunteering to work with him.

The one-on-one battles added a splash of gasoline to his competitive fire and the daily progress he was making fueled his excitement to get back on the mat and learn more.   

“Every day he’d get a little more comfortable, a little less awkward,” Fong said. “He’d see things and how they’d piece together, how one move sets up another move. He was having fun with it. He was making everybody in the room better.”

Rich was an instant starter on a state championship team, and Fong described him as “the fun in the room.” Though Rich lost his first match when Middletown wrestled another school in a preseason scrimmage, the opposing coach approached Fong afterward and said: “By the end of the year, the results are going to be very different.”

And they were.

Rich placed third at the Connecticut state tournament in his first season. His life began to take a different course as well. The early success Rich experienced in the sport fostered a new self confidence and brought out his gregarious side.

Wrestling provided him with more stability away from the mat and the relationship between coach and athlete began to take on a father-son feel, too.

“Rich is inspirational to me,” Fong said. “Knowing you can have such an effect on someone’s life is powerful. I’ve been coaching 24 years and my son’s starting to get old enough to be wrestling in middle school.

“When I consider retiring from coaching to spend time with my own son, it’s the stories like Rich that keep me coaching because there’s some kid out there that needs to be not necessarily the next Richard Perry success on the mat, but you can make a difference the same way. My son is only 12, but he knows. He says: ‘Dad, you can’t stop because there’s other kids out there like Rich.’ ”

Fong said Rich’s wrestling reached a new level leading up to his senior season. He traveled to tournaments around New England during the offseason. The additional mat time and exposure to different opponents and styles made Rich more difficult for opponents to handle. He won a state title as a senior.

“After (my junior season), I was like, ‘Man, this is awesome, I’m going to come back and try twice as hard. I’m going to try to do all the right things to be the best I can be,’ ” he said. “Fast forward, and we’re here at Camp Pendleton at the World Team training camp.”

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There’s one Division I wrestling program in Connecticut, and Richard Perry went all in on Sacred Heart.

He recruited the Pioneers. He emailed. He called. He made a trip to campus to drop off a video highlight package and tried to set up a face-to-face meeting with the coaches.

He didn’t get anywhere with Sacred Heart.

“I was really salty,” he said. “I was like, ‘I can wrestle there. Why are they not talking to me or contacting me back?’ ”

He moved to Plan B. He went online and checked out Sacred Heart’s schedule. His new top choice: Bloomsburg.

The reason? The Huskies handed Sacred Heart its most lopsided loss that season. Sure, it was kind of petty, Rich said, but he had a point to prove.

He emailed John Stutzman, then the coach at Bloomsburg, and got a response in a matter of minutes. They talked on the phone, and Stutzman asked Rich how soon he could come for a visit. He was on campus less than 48 hours later.

“I hopped on a bus to New York City, stayed in a train station overnight, took another train to Pennsylvania and got on another bus to Bloomsburg,” Rich said.

Stutzman showed up at the bus stop with Rich’s recruiting host, a freshman named Frank Hickman, who would become the best man in Rich and Gina’s wedding. They still remember him getting off the bus and putting on a dress shirt and tie.

“He wants to make a great first impression,” Stutzman said. “I take him over to the admissions office, and he brings his transcripts. We sit down and right away you knew there was something about the kid — the smile, the charisma. My admissions director looked at him and accepted him on the spot. I don’t think most admissions people do that.”

There were a few obstacles to get around, though. Rich didn’t meet NCAA academic qualification standards. It meant he couldn’t participate in workouts with the team, didn’t qualify for an athletic scholarship and racked up what Stutzman estimates was a $30,000 bill to go to school at Bloomsburg his freshman year.

“So what did he do?” Stutzman said. “He walked on, he got really good grades and he literally wrestled every open tournament without ever working out (with the team) his freshman year. You knew right away he was very dedicated and committed to wrestling and life in general.”

Rich went 14-9 during his first year with the Huskies, including a win in Bloomsburg’s dual victory against Sacred Heart. He was a Jordan Burroughs starter kit, a guy with a blast double-leg, a lighting-quick go-behind and an overwhelming package of speed and strength that allowed him to overcome a work-in-progress arsenal.

“He was so coachable,” Hickman said during a Facetime interview from Thailand, where he trains MMA fighters. “You could just see a guy with raw athletic talent. I knew once you put the technique with it for wrestling it was going to be too much for guys. And it was. You could just see him getting better every match.”

Rich compiled a 33-12 record as a sophomore and qualified for the NCAA Championships. Fong sat in the stands at the national tournament, swelling with pride and telling those around him about Rich’s rapid rise in the sport.

The story kept getting better. Rich went 30-6 as a junior and set a school record as a senior when he won 31 consecutive matches. He captured an Eastern Wrestling League title and entered the NCAA Championships with a 31-1 record.

For the third straight year, however, Rich fell short of earning All-America honors at the national tournament. A late lead got away in the second round against Iowa’s Nathan Burak and a two-point loss to Penn State’s Morgan McIntosh bounced him from the consolation bracket.

Rich finished his college career with 110 victories, the 11th-highest total in Bloomsburg history. The Huskies won 56 dual meets during his four seasons as a starter. It was Bloomsburg’s best stretch in more than 30 years.

“Our best years at Bloom, man, he was a catapult for all of that with his attitude and his work ethic,” said Stutzman, who left Bloomsburg after Rich’s junior season to become the head coach at Buffalo. “He’s always had a unique ability to be ultra positive about any situation. He’s always been that guy. In the worst of times, he’s always found the light.”

The Perry Family needs our help. Please take the time to read his story and share! Thanks you.

— Jordan Burroughs (@alliseeisgold) August 29, 2018

The conversation outside the barracks at Camp Pendleton shifted from the past to the present. This was shaping up to be a big year for Rich. Gina gave birth to the couple’s third child in March. In June, Rich placed third at 86 kilograms in the World Team qualifying process, securing a spot on the U.S. National Team for the first time in his career. It meant he’d receive a stipend from USA Wrestling and more international opportunities were set to come his way.

“For him to make the National Team,” said Brandon Slay, who coaches Rich at the Pennsylvania Regional Training Center, “I would say, is the biggest moment of his wrestling career thus far.”

It was a big moment for so many others, too.

“It was a huge deal for a lot of us,” Hickman said. “Seeing him put in all that work and to know what he’s been through and what he’s come from, it meant a lot to him and his family, but it meant a lot to us who wrestled with him.”

It also kept Rich on a linear trajectory pointed toward Tokyo in 2020 — at least that’s the way Slay looked at it. Rich placed fifth at the 2016 Olympic Trials after losing a 10-7 shootout to four-time NCAA champ Kyle Dake in the quarterfinals. He finished fourth at the 2017 World Team Trials and then third this year.

“I told him at that rate in 2020 you’ll be on the Olympic Team,” Slay said.

Wrestling had already taken Rich to the Olympics once. He went to Rio in 2016 as Kyle Snyder’s training partner and helped him bring home gold.

“Richard is such a servant,” Slay said. “He’s always there for you. He’s humble, he’s taken his pride out of it. He, of course, wants to continue to get better and progress and learn.”

Jordan Burroughs put together a list of candidates to serve as his training partner for this year’s World Championships in Budapest. He ultimately picked the guy who four years ago was too shy to approach him on his own at the 2014 NCAA Championships.  

At the time, Burroughs was on a run of three straight World and Olympic titles to begin his international career. The former Nebraska great laughs when he thinks back to being approached by ex-Nebraska strength coach Jason Mester, who became the head coach at Bloomsburg when Stutzman left for Buffalo.

“He said I’ve got a guy who really wants to meet you, but he’s afraid to come up to you and say hello,’ ” Burroughs said. “That guy was Rich Perry.”

They became close friends over the next four years. Rich would make trips from Pennsylvania to Buffalo to train with Burroughs when he was visiting his wife’s family over the holidays. And Burroughs, a New Jersey native, would come to Philadelphia to train with Rich when he was back home.

When it came time to pick a partner for Budapest, Burroughs sorted through his options and talked it over with USA Wrestling freestyle coach Bill Zadick.

“We were talking about who has the best feel, who’s going to give you the feel of a foreigner, who’s going to give you the best look,” Burroughs said. “Essentially, what it came back to was: Who are you the closest with? And that was Rich. I wanted to pick a guy who not only would give me a good look, but a guy I wanted to be around in between practices and workout sessions, a guy I wanted to walk to the arena with and get lunch with after weigh-ins. All those things are extremely important to me, and Rich was all those things to me. That’s why I decided to choose him.”

I told Burroughs about my conversation two weeks ago with Rich and how I walked away with one thought in my mind: I want to be more like Rich. More positive. More vibrant. More uplifting.

“And if you can’t be like him, you surround yourself with people like that,” Burroughs said. “I think that’s why he’s so well loved by wrestlers of all levels.”

Hickman describes Rich as the type who “brings out the good in people.”

“When you’re around him, you feel like you’re a better person,” he said. “That’s how he is, and he’s been that way since I met him when he got off the bus.”

News of Rich’s injury quickly spread throughout the wrestling world. A family friend launched a GoFundMe campaign and shared some of the details. He’d been transported to one of the top neurological hospitals in California and he was in a fight for his life.

The GoFundMe page raised more than $60,000 in less than 24 hours, a testament both to Rich’s reputation in the sport and the unity of the wrestling community. The total has since doubled with funds flooding in from more than 1,800 donors.

Rudis launched a fundraising campaign for the Perry family last week. The apparel company is selling “Richard Perry Overcomer” T-shirts for $35 with all proceeds going to the family. Rudis managing partner and president Jesse Leng said the company had raised more than $12,000 on the shirt sales as of Thursday morning.

That figure will increase when Fong places an order for the Middletown High School team. He said his wrestlers asked him this week if they could wear the Overcomer shirts this season rather than ordering custom team apparel.

Slay said Stephen Neal, a 1999 World champion who went on to win three Super Bowl rings as an offensive lineman with the New England Patriots, offered his San Diego guest house for the Perry family after meeting Rich at Camp Pendleton.

Inspired by watching Rich pump out push-ups at a recent training camp as part of a stretch in which he did 2,000 for 30 consecutive days — yes, that’s 60,000 push-ups in a month — two-time NCAA finalist Bryce Meredith encouraged wrestlers around the country to take up the “Rich Perry Challenge” and do 1,000 a day for a month.  

“It’s been really, really special to see the love the wrestling world has provided for Richard Perry thus far,” Slay said.

Fong flew last week to San Diego to be by Rich’s side. He posted a poignant photo Friday on Facebook with his hand wrapped around Rich’s.

“He’s always overcome the odds,” Fong said. “His whole life he’s overcome the odds. What makes this any different? They say one thing. They say he’s not going to do certain things. He’s going to overcome. That’s what he does.”

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